A Concern reading list with a special focus on Haitian historians and novelists
This past weekend, the New York Times ran a series of detailed reports charting the history of Haiti from the country’s 1791 Revolution to how the effects of their hard-won independence are still being felt today. One of the results of the series, titled “The Ransom,” was a renewed debate over how much of the Times’s report was “breaking news” versus knowledge that is common, especially among historians and anthropologists. (The debt that Haiti took on in order to gain independence from France — and its ramifications today — were part of Concern’s own timeline of Haitian history, first published in 2021.)
The Times published an extensive bibliography as part of the series, although some historians reported being consulted for the report and subsequently left out of this collection of works cited. If you want to learn more about why the country is at the level of crisis it is now, we’ve put together our own recommended reading list of 11 books about Haiti, with a special focus on Haitian historians and authors.
C.L.R. James: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
Originally published in 1938, The Black Jacobins has been cited by historians of Haiti as the “definitive” account of the Haitian Revolution, particularly focusing on leader Toussaint Louverture. Trinidadian author and historian C.L.R. James originally began working on a play about Louverture in 1934, which ran in London’s West End and starred the legendary actor and activist Paul Robeson. This history complements James’s dramatization, examining the Haitian Revolution in the context of the contemporary French Revolution. It also explores racial dynamics, colonialism and slavery, and inequality and marginalization — all topics that are still relevant today. (The Black Jacobins would also be the title for another Haitian Revolution play by James, which he wrote in 1967 shortly before the overthrow of Baby Doc Duvalier).
Toussaint Louverture: The Haitian Revolution
Verso Books, 2008
This collection of Louverture’s speeches and writings, compiled by leading historian and Princeton professor Nick Nesbitt, goes directly to one of the Revolution’s original sources. While there is less of an overarching history presented, it’s still a valuable resource to understand one of the driving forces in this pivotal moment in history. Connecting past with present, Jean-Bertrand Aristide — who became Haiti's first democratically-elected president in 2001 — wrote the introduction.
Bayyinah Bello and Kervin Andre: SHEROES of the Haitian Revolution
Thorobred Books, 2021
Humanitarian worker, professor, and founder of the historical research organization Fondation Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines, Bayyinah Bello is one of the preeminent historians of Haiti working today. Last year’s SHEROES of the Haitian Revolution explores the historical event through a gender-transformative lens, focusing on the women who were instrumental to Haiti’s independence. Artist Kervin Andre’s illustrations make this a book suitable for all ages.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot: Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
Beacon Press, 1995
Haitian-American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot fled the Duvalier dictatorship in 1968, settling in the United States where he eventually held professorships at both Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential Haitian historians of the last century, which makes sense if you read Silencing the Past.
In the introduction to this landmark history of Haiti, Trouillot writes: “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” This becomes a theme for understanding not only the Haitian Revolution, but also how its aftermath has led to a decades-long—if not centuries-long—crisis.
Charles Arthur and Michael Dash (editors): Libète: A Haiti Anthology
Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999
If you’re looking for a single book about Haitian history that is both wide-ranging and in-depth, Libète manages to be both — and in just over 350 pages. Sections of this anthology include “Colonialism and Revolution,” “Rural Haiti,” “Poverty and Urban Life,” and “Foreign Interventions,” with readings collected from some of the leading historians on Haiti and the country’s authors, including C.L.R. James, Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Roumain, and Edwidge Danticat, and historical context from editors Charles Arthur and Michael Dash. What’s more, several entries in this reader are translated from Creole to English for the first time.
Edwidge Danticat: Brother, I’m Dying
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Born in Port-au-Prince in 1969, Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat’s biography mirrors those of many immigrant children: When she was two years old, her father immigrated to New York. Two years later, he was able to send for her mother. Still in Haiti, Edwige and her younger brother were left in the care of her aunt and uncle while their parents worked to establish a stable home before sending for their children. Because of this, Edwige always saw her uncle as her second father.
Unlike Trouillot, Danticat was there for Haiti’s turbulent 1970s, growing up under both Papa and Baby Doc. While Brother, I’m Dying is primarily a memoir about her two fathers, separated by the Haitian diaspora, it’s impossible to separate family history from political history. It’s an excellent book to understand the individual impact of the country’s political crises. (You can also read some of her historical essays in the New Yorker.)
Jacques Stephen Alexis: General Sun, My Brother
University of Virginia Press, 1999
Originally published in French in 1955, just six years before its author’s death, General Sun, My Brother was finally translated into English 44 years later. Edwidge Danticat cites this novel (Alexis’s first) as one of her top five works of Haitian literature, and cites its “sense of the larger historical narrative.” This sense of history underscores the story of a migrant laborer during the US occupation of Haiti whose life intersects with the 1937 massacre of Haitian cane workers in the Dominican Republic, known as the “Dominican Vespers.”
Born in Gonaïves in 1922, Jacques Stephen Alexis was the son of a journalist, historian, and diplomat and, through his mother’s side, a descendant of Haitian founder Jean-Jacques Dessalines. History is central to his fiction and poetry, which also reflected the social and political atmospheres of his short life.
Laurent Dubois: Haiti: The Aftershocks of History
Historian and co-director of the Haiti Lab at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute, Laurent Dubois has authored several books about Haiti. The Aftershocks of History, a New York Times Notable book for 2013, is a good place to start for a comprehensive-but-comprehensible history of the country that includes the Revolution, but continues throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries, including the devastating 2010 earthquake. The context Dubois provides breaks down a centuries-old complex emergency at the heart of the Haiti crisis today, while debunking the idea that Haiti’s poverty and instability are inevitable.
Paul Farmer: The Uses of Haiti
Common Courage Press, 1994
Paul Farmer, who passed away earlier this year, was a physician, chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and cofounder of Partners In Health, a colleague organization of Concern. His 2011 book, Haiti After the Earthquake, vividly depicts the humanitarian response effort following the country’s most devastating earthquake. However, Farmer’s experience and expertise in Haiti was well-established long before 2010. In The Uses of Haiti, he provides firsthand insight into the military coup of 1991-1994, with additional context on how foreign policy affected this turbulent era. Most crucially, Farmer looks at how these political actions were felt hardest by the country’s most vulnerable, especially in terms of health and nutrition.
Beverly Bell: Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti's Divide
Cornell University Press, 2013
Myriam J.A. Chancy: What Storm, What Thunder
Tin House, 2021
After Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, activist and author Beverly Bell, who has worked extensively in the country, traveled around interviewing survivors of the earthquake and documenting the aftermath in Haiti and abroad. Her resulting book,* Fault Lines,* takes readers from displacement camps to overcrowded urban settlements to the country’s rural areas and presenting members of each community not as victims and not as “resilient,” but as people who live full, rich lives in the face of protracted crisis, while examining the circumstances that made recovery from the 2010 earthquake a project that continues to this day.
This pairs nicely with Haitian-born novelist and academic Myriam J.A. Chancy’s What Storm, What Thunder, a novel set in the same time, in response to the same catastrophe, and with a similar focus. Dozens of lives are upended, and she treats each one with a sense of agency and dignity. In an eerie bit of timing, it was released shortly after last year’s earthquake, which Chancy says hammers the point of her novel further home. “People persist,” she told NPR last October, adding: “I hope that those who pick up a novel will feel that it connects them to what is happening in Haiti right now and that it will increase a sense of empathy.”